Checking flight status, monitoring the number of passengers hooked up to the onboard Wi-Fi, verifying whether each piece of hardware in the inflight entertainment and connectivity systems are performing as expected. At any given moment, between 200–300 active flights are evaluated from within Panasonic Avionics’ Mission Control Center, or MCC.
“At MCC, we do a pretty good job of being proactive,” says Mission Control Center manager Hector Torres. Torres’ modesty is belied by the fact that MCC helps airlines accomplish one of the most challenging feats the industry faces day in and day out: Keeping passengers happy. That’s no small order when there are so many moving parts to maintaining passenger’s expectations of inflight connectivity.
To date, over 1,350 individual aircraft are equipped with Panasonic Avionics’ Global Communication Services (GCS), the platform on which internet, television and telephone connectivity — eXConnect, eXTV and eXPhone, respectively — is built. Of these, anywhere up to 500+ are simultaneously in use by airlines such as Lufthansa, United Airlines and Emirates.
That’s a lot of planes to monitor 24/7/365 around the globe.
This is where Mission Control Center comes in.
At any given moment, between 200–300 active flights are evaluated from within Panasonic Avionics' Mission Control Center.
Keeping Passengers Connected
The heart of Mission Control Center resides in a room deep in the Lake Forest, Calif., campus of Panasonic Avionics. The 36-person service desk is manned in shifts by groups of employees who scan five large wall-mounted screens and their desktop monitors, looking for any indication something — anything — may be amiss.
MCC supervisor Ray Hashmani points to the first screen, which monitors Panasonic Avionics’ global television service, eXTV. “It’s a tap into the feed of what’s happening in the aircraft, and it gives us an idea of what’s going on,” Hashmani says. The feed helps identify outages or other issues that may be occurring — perhaps the live stream of a world sporting event isn’t coming in strong — and allows the service desk to investigate immediately.
A neighboring screen contains the dashboard tool, which at the moment is set up to check on any connectivity thresholds the currently inflight aircraft may be hitting.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that the aircraft are having issues, but it gives us the incentive to look at our network and see if there’s anything going on in the individual aircraft,” he says, adding that the system automatically triggers an actionable work-order ticket when certain functions don’t hit their targets.
Additional screens boast data-visualization renderings of the ground-to-air network, as observed by Panasonic’s live monitoring tools, which paint the service desk a portrait of the flight and service statuses of all active flights equipped with GCS.
Like with the other MCC tools, any issues detected by the monitoring tools are fed back to the service desk team, who first verify it’s not merely a false positive before moving it down the chain of command to the engineering team.
Beyond the service desk, a second team of analysts known as MCC Reporting look at all of the data collected by the reporting systems and sifts for trends.
“If you have somebody who’s raised the same ticket four times for the same route, then the idea is that our reporting team would notice the trend,” MCC manager Torres says. Even if a problem can’t be resolved for a flight while it’s in the air, the ticketing system allows crews to be dispatched to fix the issue as soon as it lands, thus limiting any possible domino effect.
He says passengers rightly expect their IFE systems to work. When they don’t, they can cost airlines a lot of money if they’re not resolved quickly. “So, it’s great to see our work pay off — literally,” Torres says.
Inflight troubleshooting with DART
Mission Control has become even more critical as airlines increase their focus on operational efficiency and maximize aircraft investments.
“A lot of airlines have a one-hour window to maintain the aircraft. It’s not like the old days where an aircraft would stay overnight at a certain station. They’re just flying — 24/7. They never rest,” Torres says. “By the time you offload the passengers and get everybody off the aircraft, they probably have a 30-minute window to try and fix something.”
That’s not a lot of time to triage a problem and devise a solution to fix it, which is why it has become imperative to connect to aircraft while they are in the air.
Central to this function is DART, or the data analysis reporting tool.
“If there’s a database here at Panasonic, whatever the database is, it’s more than likely that DART taps into it,” Torres says. “We turn data into knowledge.”
An invention patented by Panasonic Avionics, DART contains a huge amount of internal and external data and data-visualization capabilities. “DART allows us to be ahead of the game, from all the other competitors,” Torres says.
“Mission Control has become even more critical as airlines increase their focus on operational efficiency and maximize aircraft investments.”
Among its functions, DART is able to receive and correlate data via automatic BITE (built-in test equipment) offload — invaluable information that allows ground maintenance crews to analyze and get organized to fix a problem as soon as a plane arrives at the gate.
To illustrate its usefulness, Torres recalls a particular instance: “There was an email forwarded to us from an airline executive flying in business on a connected aircraft, stating the whole middle column was out for IFE. He said, ‘What can I do to assist?'”
Torres immediately turned to DART to check past event logs. Sure enough, the IFE for those seats had been out in a previous flight. Further research showed the unit at fault had been installed in the plane just a few flights prior, indicating an improper installment. In other cases Torres and his team can even resolve issues with live onboard support remotely accessing the system.
When the flight landed at its destination, the technicians on the ground knew exactly how to fix it thanks to MCC’s analysis.
“When it flew back to Dallas, it was fine,” Torres says.